I started my career selling mainframe computers for IBM in the very late 70’s. One of the most important things I learned from one of my mentors at the time was, “What We Sell Is Different Than What We Install.” It’s a simple notion that is important for every sales person today–whether you sell cars, complex computer systems, complex services. We wrap a lot of fancy terminology around the concept, we call it Solution Selling, Consultative Selling, Provocative Selling, Insight Based Selling; but the underlying principles are the same.
Let me go back to my days of selling computers. The purchase order the customer gave us was for a computer system, “We want, quantity 2, IBM 3033, Model …….” (for those of you who are mainframe veterans you can see how much I’m dating myself). We shipped a bunch of boxes (usually blue), software, and cables. We installed those boxes and software. We also provided a lot of services (for a fee) that got those boxes to do something other than consume a lot of electricity.
But that’s not what we sold. we sold ideas, dare I say Insight. We had lots of things that we would talk to the customer about. One of the very first ideas I promoted with my bank was a new way improve the productivity of the people they had processing credit card transactions. We installed a $15 million mainframe and some software systems that reduced the time spent in approving credit card transactions. It save the bank $10’s of millions.
Later in my career, I ran a business unit focused on product design and development tools. I remember speaking with the top design executives at Boeing. Our team believed there was a different way to design and test airplanes. We believed a large portion of the design effort could be done digitally. We thought it could revolutionize the design process–reducing the time it took to design a new aircraft, dramatically reducing the costs, while enabling engineers to consider many more design alternatives. We didn’t know a lot about designing and testing airplanes, but we had tools we thought could make a difference. We ended up working, collaboratively with Boeing’s engineers, as well as those of other companies. All of them knew about designing airplanes, we had some ideas and some new software. Together, it revolutionized design, testing, ultimately manufacturing. The first order I got from that project was about $150 M, over years it grew to $billions.
My colleagues did the similar things. We engaged our customers in conversations about their businesses, we talked to them about new ideas, we would ask a lot of questions. We were famous for asking “What if….?” Our customers never ordered or installed these ideas, they would order and install a computer system. They would ask for our help in providing services in developing the software and solutions that brought the ideas to reality.
I never went to my customers to ask them to buy a computer Model XXX, priced $Y million. While that’s what customers bought, we wouldn’t think of selling them that way. We knew the customers would ask, “What do I buy it for?”
Thousands of sales people have similar conversations everyday. They talk to their customers about dreams, they give ideas, they find ways for improving their customers businesses, they help the customer identify new opportunities. That’s what they sell, what the customer buys–what they order, is usually something different. It may be some equipment, it may be components, it may be software, it may be services, or it may be a combination of things.
Sometimes customer need a product and will ask for it. It’s tough to compete on a pure product basis. These days, there aren’t huge differences in the capabilities of products competitors may supply. There may be minor differences in features and performance, but it’s rare these differences are sustained for a long time. Companies and competitors keep adding new capabilities, stair stepping each other. On a pure “product sale,” it’s very difficult to create value and differentiate yourself.
Customers want ideas, insight. They want to know how to improve their businesses, how to address new opportunities. They want their sales people to help them see new things, to engage them in conversations about new processes, procedures.
We all have similar opportunities to create value for our customers. We have to remember what we sell–what the customer buys may be very different from what is on their purchase order and what we ship them?
What are you selling? What is your customer buying?